Effective Community Engagement In 5 Steps

According to Charmaine Smith, from Infundo Consulting, there are a few key principles to keep in mind when embarking on community upliftment projects – whether for your company’s social investment portfolio, or in a private capacity.

Principle 1 – We are equal AND different 

Everyone involved in a project and a community holds a different, but equally important role. We should bear this in mind and include people for the gift they bring to the project and not be limited in terms of what we assume the most helpful avenues will be. For example, sometimes the people that will give you helpful insights into a school project are the cleaners at that school – not the principal or the government official. They tend to know aspects we may overlook.

Principle 2 – Partnership

As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
There are multiple ways to live this out, but the key here is to suspend our egos. It is essential to remember that social development is not competitive – we all stand to lose or gain from the process and the outcomes.

Partner with other companies that have the same corporate social investment focus as you or with partnering groups who can add value in areas you cannot fund. Partner with your beneficiaries – the benefits of taking their suggestions into account translates into a shared ownership and vision of the longer-term outcomes of the project. This often results in better sustainability and longevity of the project. And exits become organic because the community owns the project.

Principle 3 – Know what comes in the room when you enter

How do people see you? How do you see yourself? Do not be naïve regarding the filters that other people could be seeing you through. There is nothing wrong with who you are – it just helps to be aware of how people may see you when you walk into a context, because then you can work with the assumptions that come with that perception.

Role clarity is a key area to clarify here. Not just the overt roles like donor; but subconscious roles like the powerful one; or the powerless one.

It is so important to understand this concept and consciously work with the dynamic which may have come in with you; this is crucial in order to shift roles which may not be helpful to the project.  You all have to be powerful in your own rights if you are to become partners in a project that is designed to benefit all parties. Own up to mistakes and ask questions. Let people know that you don’t have all the answers either.

Don’t play the hero! Play the sidekick where appropriate! This way other heroes can come to the fore!

Principle 4 – Active citizenry

We are starting to see more and more citizens rising up and uniting around desired outcomes – and the youth in South Africa are leading the way here.

In terms of social investment projects, this means funding important activities and making each cent count. It means holding groups accountable for the impact and implementation of a project. Appropriate monitoring and evaluation is thus an important part of the role of corporate South Africa.

This often means having the tough conversations – asking communities to be accountable; to step up; take their place as partners. It means saying to ourselves and our organisations: we funded this but it didn’t work as planned – how do we do this better? How should I behave as a funder of a project to make sure that we are doing it better?

Principle 5 – Purposefully invest in relationships

It is so important for funders to realise the impact of deep relationships in the success of our projects, and thus intentionally INVEST in the relationships and not just the project.

It is worth allocating time and funds for building relationships in a community before you begin a project. Sometimes the initial planning takes longer but it is wiser to focus on exponential change in the long-term that is built on a base of good relationship equity.

Principle 6 – Scale the principles

Make use of principles, which have worked in other projects in your social investments. So speak to others who have projects which work – even if their project isn’t in the same area or genre as yours, you can replicate their winning principles.  Principles like “investment in relationship equity” must be in place in every project, even if application may vary e.g. working in rural areas or urban areas – relationships are key but in the rural area these may be with the tribal chiefs; whereas an urban area it may be important to have relationships with the union shop stewards.

And finally, don’t be discouraged – there is no quick fix or instant change – but instead long-term and focused implementation!